The People of Hanover


The People of Hanover

Oppression and apartheid left neighborhoods like Hanover Park with a reputation for poverty, crime, and gangsterism. Toka Hlongwane tells a different story.

By Toka HlongwaneMay 19, 2019 ・ 35 mins.


CAPE TOWN IS AN OXYMORONIC CITY. At first glance, it looks majestic with beautiful beaches, an orgasmic nightlife, heritage sites, and a mountain that attracts thousands of tourists every year. But after a long hard gaze, you realize that it is a Kafkaesque city. Its dark character shows itself through gangsterism and extreme levels of poverty. In 2018, the Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice ranked Cape Town 15th on the list of the world’s most violent cities, with a murder rate of 62.3 per 100,000 people. These are some of the facts that your travel agent and their whimsical brochures don’t tell you when you plan your holiday to Cape Town.

As alarming as these statistics sound, there is something about these numbers and news reports that made my stomach churn. All the news reports about crime in Cape Town concentrated on specific areas, namely the Cape Flats, a collection of townships and shanty towns situated on a flat, low-lying area just 20 kilometers away from the Cape Town city bowl and neighboring suburbia. Most of the victims and perpetrators of these crimes were people of colour. I felt blue that black on black violence is still a major issue across the African continent.

I was also blue about how black on black violence is reported in news media. About how macabre and inhumane some of the headlines can read, making both the perpetrators and victims sound like characters in a Tarantino flick. I wondered how credible some of these reports were, and what angles of the story were neglected and why. News media in South Africa often have a habit of peddling exaggerated narratives about communities of people of colour, and often neglect to report the main issues that affect these communities on daily basis.

For example, in my hometown of Thokoza, a civil war broke out between the ANC (African National Congress) and IFP (Inkhata Freedom Party) in the early 90s. News media described it as a primitive tribal war among Zulus and Xhosas. But it was actually a political war orchestrated by the Apartheid regime to discredit any form of black rule by making black people seem unfit to govern a country, as later Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonials revealed. When I read and watched news reports on Cape Town and its crime, I did so with a critical eye.

I also knew, however, that where there was smoke there might be fire, and entirely discarding what these news reports were saying would be foolish. As a person who has lived most of their life in the ghetto, I can attest that danger and crime are always lurking in the shadows, just like in any other country in the world.

But the difference between crime on the Cape Flats and the rest of South Africa is that murder and extreme violence appear to be the sigil of the Cape Flats. It is known as a place that is home to some of the most notoriously dangerous street gangs and organized crime groups on the African continent. These gangs have etched their presence on the Cape Flats communities since the 1970s, along with another 175 gangs on the Cape Peninsula.

In 2014 I moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg. I had landed my dream job as a Junior Television Producer and I found myself an apartment in the northern suburbs. I was out of the ghetto and finally living out some of my childhood dreams. The city of Cape Town lived up to its image from the whimsical brochures, and I was in awe of its majesty. The streets in the city were pristine, as if we were anticipating the Queen of England’s arrival at any given moment. The beaches looked beautiful and Table Mountain's stature was a constant reminder that I was far from most of the hardships I had endured in the past, because finally, my life was coming together.

Over time, the honeymoon phase ended, and the infatuation I had for Cape Town faded away. I began seeing facets of the city that don’t make the news headlines unless there is a fatal crisis. The number of homeless people camouflaged in this city’s kaleidoscopic, “very clean” streets is tear-inducing, and there is little to no media coverage about this issue in our local publications. Life for many people of colour in Cape Town is unpleasant and it is evident in the number of informal settlements, beggars, and vagrants you come across daily in the city. One of the most disturbing things I picked up on was that a huge percentage of the beggars and homeless people were coloured, just as three quarters of gang members and gangsters are predominantly coloured as well.

Gang culture across South Africa is often attributed to coloured people—a South African multicultural ethnic group who have ancestry from Khoisan, Bantu, East Asian, South Asian, Austronesian, Afrikaner/Dutch, and English origins, and predominantly speak Afrikaans. This was a racial stereotype that I came to believe at some point in my life. In 2005 I was chased by a group of coloured boys in Eden Park—a coloured neighborhood next to Thokoza in Johannesburg. The boys waved baseball bats and angry fists in the air, shouting “jou ma se poes!” I suppose I was chased for being on the wrong turf and being a stranger. At that time, Eden Park and other coloured neighborhoods in Johannesburg like Reiger Park and Eldorado Park were synonymous with gangs and drug dealers, and because I had never been chased for being in a foreign neighborhood, my bias automatically agreed with the popular rhetoric that coloureds were violent gangsters and drug dealers.


But now that I was in Cape Town where coloured people make up 42.6% of the population (black people make up 38.6% of the population, white 15.7%, Indian or Asian 1.4%, and other is 1.9%), making it the only province in South Africa where coloured people are the majority race, I saw it as an opportunity to understand the texture of the cloth they were cut from. I wanted to know why and how most coloured people became racially stereotyped as violent, drug abusing gangsters whose women are generous with below-the-waist pleasures and making babies.


I was too scared to go to the townships in the Cape Flats because of the morbid news headlines I had seen. The dark urban legend status Cape Town gangs had in the city also fueled my fear. But my curiosity eventually convinced me; I felt that my photography was limited to one side of Cape Town. So, I began visiting Cape Town townships like Gugulethu, Philiphi, Langa, and Elsiesriver. Despite my skepticism of news media reports, I stayed clear of the dangerous coloured neighborhoods like Manenberg, Lavender Hill and Hanover Park on the Cape Flats. My mother wasn’t helping the course either, constantly reminding me that she didn’t raise a child who was going to die in this stupid Cape Town I had relocated to.

Over time I started befriending people from these communities and I realized how my prejudice had taken precedence in my fear of these areas. I won’t lie and say that danger is not rife in these places and that gangsters are sweet people, but I began to realize that at the end of the day, the residents of these townships are people nonetheless.

I wanted to see what life in the Cape Flats was like for them. On my off days, I set out to spend time in one of the gangster-ridden communities of the Cape Flats called Hanover Park, home to some of the most notorious gangs in South Africa: the Mongrels, Americans, and Hard Livings. The main aim of my quest was to prove to myself that this often-dehumanized community wasn’t just a gangster and crime academy, but a community; one with children, businesses, churches, mosques, and more.


Apartheid’s Seeds and Legacy

As I was walking around Hanover Park, I recognized landmarks I had seen since I was a child on the news; there has been little to no development in the area, aside from fresh paint layers on the flats. On my visits, instead of feeling endangered, I recognized characters that were synonymous with my own hometown: there was a great presence of oneness, everyone knew each other, children were playing joyfully in the streets, some of the so-called gangsters were walking up to me and pitching their stories for a good price and exposure.

Once they knew I was there to document their community, they were even more welcoming, granting me passage to dice games and barber shops. One man even commanded me to take a picture of his mother. With each visit I began to feel like less of an outsider, and the “enter at your own risk” stigma faded away— I realized that the images of gangsterism that the media and bureaucrats dangled are just to divert us from the real issues that plague this community.

Cape Town and Western Cape are run by a white liberal party called the Democratic Alliance, which in recent months has come under fire for racism and internal fighting over race-related issues, among other things. Two years ago, one of its main leaders, Hellen Zille, had an unsavory tweet that read, “for those claiming the legacy of colonialism was Only Negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, and piped water.” Which is ironic, considering that black townships in Western Cape are predominantly shanty towns, whose people have to share communal taps and port-a-loos, and lack access to piped water.


Over 35% of the population of Cape Town live under these conditions, most of them black people. Over half of the 42.6% percent of the coloured population of the city live in underdeveloped townships and flats built in the 1950s. Some roam the city’s streets on a daily basis, converting sidewalks and alleyways into homes. Homelessness in Cape Town has increased from the last count in 2015, which estimated over 7,383 people were living on the street.

To fully grasp the conditions of the coloured people in South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, you need to journey back to Apartheid. In 1950, just two years after Apartheid was established, the regime created legislation called the Population Registration Act, which classified people according to their race and ethnic group. This law laid the groundwork to later segregate the population by race and ethnic groups.

Along with that legislation came the Group Areas Act, which displaced people of colour from the city and designated them to its outskirts, namely the Cape Flats, where they were far from the business center and other amenities they previously shared with the white population. Droves of people were displaced from places like Salt River, Cator Manor, and the historical District Six, a cosmopolitan inner-city area predominantly inhabited by coloureds who were descendants of the first freed slaves in 1833. After the Second World War, District Six was inhabited by coloured Muslims known as the Cape Malay, non-Muslim coloureds, Indians, black people (mainly Xhosas) and a small number of Afrikaaners and English-speaking whites. In 1960, District 6 became the last and largest victim of forced removals, and over 60,000 coloureds and blacks were displaced under the Group Areas Act.

Government officials gave a few primary reasons for the removals. In accordance with apartheid philosophy, they claimed that interracial interaction bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races. They deemed District Six a slum, fit only to be cleared, not rehabilitated. They also portrayed the area as crime-ridden and dangerous—they claimed it was a den of immoral activities like gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Though these were the official reasons, most residents believed that the government sought the land because of its proximity to the city center, Table Mountain, and the harbor.

The main aim of the racial divisions was to give absolute power and control of every resource in the country to the minority white settlers, and keep the majority people of colour oppressed so they could be used as cheap labor. Apartheid was formed on the values of the Dutch Reformed Christian Church, or NKG Kerk in Afrikaans. Before 1948, the church spearheaded the ideas of Afrikaaner Nationalism, which strongly believed in the racial superiority of white people over the majority nonwhites in the country. They also believed that it was God’s intention to keep the races separated, and that they were the ones chosen to implement his laws.

Apartheid followed the age-old tradition of divide and conquer. The government controlled where each ethnic group stayed, what times they’d have to be present in certain areas, who they married, what education and jobs they had access to, and many other aspects of their daily lives. Unlike black people, coloureds were given slight preference in society and were allocated social security grants, healthcare, and public housing, as well as better-paying jobs, in order to prevent the creation of a large urban black population in Western Cape.

Under the Group Areas Act, black people who weren’t employed in the city were shipped to homelands called Bantustans across South Africa, areas divided according to the nine South African ethnic tribes. When they were moved from the city, they were taken to their designated tribal Bantustan—or so the regime thought. Often, people found themselves among a tribe that wasn’t theirs, and black people were relocated to Bantustans regardless of whether or not they had lived in the city all their life. The regime was indifferent. In their eyes a Bantu was a Bantu—a black person was a black person—and as long as they were out of the city and locked down in faraway rural homelands, the regime was happy.


“In their eyes a Bantu was a Bantu—a black person was a black person.”


 In 1965, the Black Labour Regulations Act was officially introduced in the Western Cape to regulate the number of black people who could work and live there. If a black person’s employment contract wasn’t renewed they would be shipped back their rural homelands. The regulation of the black population in this province was done to protect the white minority from a black political uprising as black opposition parties began mobilizing against the regime in other parts of the country.

The Black Labour Regulations Act’s objective was to further divide black people and coloureds, as the Coloured Labour Preference policy had done since before Apartheid’s implementation in 1948. In 1930, 37% of the white population in South Africa was mixed-race, and it was easy for those with light pigmentation to pass off as white and gain access to good jobs and education. The white ruling class began to incorporate those classified as coloured into the economic structure of the country out of fear that they would merge with the black natives and form resistance against the minority white rule. This legislation placed coloured people in an intermediate position in the hierarchy between the native black people and whites.

The Apartheid government in the Western Cape also started gendering skilled labor industries, hiring only women. The main industries in the province were textiles, canning, and farming, and by the 1970s these industries were fully gendered, with most jobs occupied by coloured women. The government believed that women were less prone to mobilize and start labor unions or stand up for their labor rights. 


After racializing and gendering the workforce in the Western Cape, the government started gendering how they provided public housing to the people they had forcefully removed from the city. They stipulated that housing would only be provided to two-parent households, or to families with women and children. Women became the conduits of the scarce economic resources and shelter in coloured communities, a status that coloured women in Cape Town hold to this day. 

This legislation rendered men in these communities unemployed and fully dependent on their women. They couldn’t play an active role in their household economies and provide for their families as they previously could when they had businesses and a sustainable economy back in the city. The only jobs they could get were at the docks and fishing vessels as unskilled laborers, or as gardeners or builders, which didn’t guarantee stable and sustainable income. This economic imbalance lasted until the early 90s, and by then, the men had formed gangs as a means of survival and resistance to the socioeconomic and political forces that reproduced poverty in the racial ghettos of the Cape Flats.

The Rise of Gangs

Crime flourished; the unemployed men from these coloured neighborhoods on the Cape Flats broke into homes and stores in white areas. Crime was a communal effort and the entire community would benefit from these Robin Hood-like heroics, according to oum (uncle) Sammy, a former Dixie Boys gang member I briefly spoke to on my visits to the Cape Flats. The gangs did not solely exist for monetary gain, but also as a form of resistance; gangs were a means to assert men’s role as protectors of their communities against harassment and civil rights violations by the state police. These young men did not possess the dominant material and symbolic capital, such as education, a profession, or a permanent job, or any legitimate economic ability to support their families. Gangs offered men alternative means and resources to assert their masculinity.

It should come as no surprise that incarceration rates soared. Most of the men on the Cape Flats were arrested for their gang activity, as well as for other offenses like being affiliated to a political liberation movement, or simply being coloured or black in a white area after sundown.

In order to survive in a South African prison, you need either to be somewhat financially privileged, or to become affiliated with prison gangs. Lacking financial resources, when the Cape Flats men ended up in prison, they had to join gangs inside. Based on individuals’ abilities and physical attributes, gangs either recruited or victimized the men. Being recruited and climbing up the ranks requires you to disown your parents, and attack, maim, or murder fellow inmates, as well as wardens and police. Because Cape Flats men were already used to gang affiliation and structures, it wasn’t hard for them to join prison gangs.

South African prisons are ruled by three main gangs, called the Numbers Gangs. Named 26, 27, and 28, the gangs were allegedly born in the mines of Johannesburg in the 1880s as a response to the conditions mine workers faced at the hands of white settlers. The gangs developed a set of rules and a secret language; their laws were said to be written on a rock and a cow’s hide. When the founder died, the two main followers parted ways after a dispute. Years later, they met in a Durban prison, where they recruited more members to their respective camps. 

Over the years, the gangs began institutionalizing their rituals and principles in prison. Their numbers gradually grew, and they eventually took over every prison in South Africa. The incarceration of coloured men from the Cape Flats would become a defining moment in the gangs’ role within their communities—gang culture in prisons changed the trajectory of the outside gangs. After serving their sentences, men began recruiting members from their respective gangs outside prison into the Numbers Gangs, a tradition that carries on to this day. According to some community members and several newspaper headlines, boys as young as 11  are recruited to be assassins and drug pushers because they won’t be tried as adults. Prison gangs control gang activity on the outside, and are responsible for arms, hits, and drug dealing.


How drugs reconstructed the landscape of the Cape Flats

In the early 80s, South African townships were erupting with riots as anti-Apartheid movements became fiercer. P.W Botha, who was then prime minister of South Africa, decided to introduce a chemical and biological weapons program called Project Coast, headed by cardiologist Dr. Wouter “Dr. Death” Basson. The aim of this program was to create chemical weapons for the army to use against South Africa’s enemies.

Some of the project’s employees describe Project Coast as a depopulation program that was embarking on sterilizing the black population of South Africa by disguising sterility drugs as vaccines. They also produced germ weapons using Botulimon toxin organisms that would be poured into the water supply of black communities. Modified Botulim organisms produce a highly deadly toxin that is undetectable in postmortem.

At the time, however, the government’s main enemies were liberation movements like the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), who had formed armies in exile and were engaging in an armed struggle with the South African government by bombing important government property like power stations and offices.

It is alleged that in 1986, Dr. Basson asked his employee Johan Koekemoer to produce ecstasy and Mandrax (Methaqualone/Quaalude) to incapacitate crowds in the township riots. The bizarre thing about this is that in order to incapacitate a crowd, you would have to gas them or spray them with some form of toxin. Instead, they produced tablets, which would be impractical for crowd control purposes. It is alleged that Dr Basson distributed the Mandrax in the townships through existing drug dealers who were already dealing in marijuana.

After Project Coast was dismantled, the South African Mandrax pandemic was uncontrollable. It was a multi-million Rand industry, with cooks, dealers and users sprouting in every township and shantytown. Pharmaceutical drugs in South Africa were for the elite and middle class, and people of colour used alcohol and marijuana. But when Mandrax was made accessible to them at a cheap price, it changed the course of life in many neighborhoods.

In South Africa, Quaalude, known to make its users happy, sexually active, and ready for a jol, isn’t ingested as it was done in the 70s around the world. In my country, the tablet is crushed, mixed with marijuana, and smoked through a broken bottleneck or crack pipe. The effects of this include drowsiness, slurred speech, and general disorientation. Perhaps this is what Dr Basson had in mind when he said “incapacitating crowds.”

Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence and testimonies against Basson at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and his trial, Basson maintained his innocence and was acquitted for most charges, and only found guilty of professional misconduct.    


“most members of the coloured community inherited poverty, socioeconomic deprivation, violence, and gangsterism.”


People became addicts while others saw business opportunities. By the mid 80s, on the Cape Flats in particular, the introduction of Mandrax started turf wars. (Mandrax is still the drug of choice today in these areas.) Gangs and drug dealers divided the place according to areas of trade, and whoever violated this code would be met with violent consequences. Murder and extreme violence started taking over life on the Cape Flats.

One might assume that things have changed in contemporary South Africa. Unfortunately, these social-spatial attributes of apartheid still stand. Much like how the children of the white apartheid chauvinists have inherited the wealth of their forefathers, most members of the coloured community inherited poverty, socioeconomic deprivation, violence, and gangsterism. Most white people in Western Cape are still rich and in power. Huge numbers of coloureds and black people are still in the same underdeveloped, poverty-stricken neighborhoods their ancestors were subjected to under the Group Areas Act, with no employment, education, or opportunity to enrich their lives.

Maligned and Misunderstood

When I became brave enough to visit the dangerous townships on Cape Flats, I began to see how misunderstood people on the Cape Flats are. All we are fed about these neighborhoods in the media is that they are drug addicts, gangsters, and alcoholics that we need to fear. What I refused to ignore was that men from the Cape Flats also had other roles outside of gangs; they were fathers, sons, brothers, and partners. I became more interested in the lives of the people around them, and the communities they live in, and sometimes live for.

There are programs that are trying to remedy some of these inequalities. The program Cease Fire recruits former gang members and sends them into high-risk areas to defuse conflict between gangs before it erupts. Originally founded in Chicago, U.S.A by Gary Slutkin, Pastor Craven Engel introduced Cease Fire to Hanover Park. The group runs programs for youth at risk in the area, helping rehabilitate gang members who want to change their trajectories, and also provide halfway and safe-houses for them. Among other things, they run skills development programs for the guys they help and monthly excursions for the youth to expose them to alternative lifestyles.


Unfortunately, the organization is currently unfunded after the City of Cape Town withdrew funding toward the end of 2017. According to Pastor Craven, at the time of the funding withdrawal, Cease Fire had managed to reduce violence by 38% in the areas where it worked. When I tried to contact the city government and the department of safety and security, all they told me was that the contract ended, and refused to elaborate on what the renewal stipulations were.

If good initiatives like Cease Fire can’t find support from the government, one can’t help but wonder who benefits from the violence in the Cape Flats. Maybe it’s another way to reproduce poverty in the racial ghettos of the Cape Flats, which subsequently perpetuates gangsterism.

In 2016, former police colonel Chris Lodewyk Prinsloo, who is affiliated with extremist right-wing Afrikaaners of South Africa, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for selling confiscated guns with a street value of nine million Rand to Cape Town gangs between 2010 and 2013. Is history repeating itself? Is this the modern-day Project Coast?


“the government and the media are central in dividing this city in two worlds.”


During my first visit in Hanover Park, I was treading carefully, aware of areas I shouldn’t go to alone and which characters aren’t friendly to the media. My escort, Glen Hans, a conflict mediator from Cease Fire and a Christian rapper, would constantly reassure me that I was safe: “You have fokol to fear my bru, when you are with me you are safe,” he’d say in his heavy coloured accent.

As we walked around, my preconceived ideas about the area faded away. I expected to be confronted by tattooed criminals and empty streets, but instead I was met with a bustling environment, people going about their day, kids en route home from school, taxis picking people up. Everyone, young and old, seemed to know each other.

Some members of the community of Hanover weren’t happy with my presence. Some people told me not to dare photograph them; they were humans who didn’t want their privacy invaded as it has been over the years. What was just a personal assignment to decriminalize the people of Hanover Park began unfolding other facets of the Cape Flats and Cape Town at large. These included the divide between people in such close proximity to each other, the blatant culture of racial, and economic division, the mistrust and false narratives about people of colour, which influence how white people—even beloved liberals—interact with people from less fortunate communities on the fringes of Cape Town. These facets made me realize how the government and the media are central in dividing this city in two worlds.    

One of the first people I encountered was a father carrying his infant daughter. Immediately, I knew that among all the danger, love and peace was also present. That baby’s curious eyes stared into my lens as I took a picture of her, while her father assured me that I was welcome and I had nothing to fear. ❖

This article, by Toka Hlongwane, comes from a partnership between Xeno and the People’s Stories Project (PSP)—part of the British Council’s arts programme in sub-Saharan Africa. Click here for more info.


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